Since lockdowns began early in 2020, much of the construction industry has had somewhat of a different experience to other sectors. Whereas other businesses were immediately shuttered and thrown into disarray, for some built environment professionals, it was a different story. This was because projects were either considered essential or, due to the nature of architects’ and engineers’ workflows, there was several months or even years of work to keep them busy.
However, the tides appear to be turning. Although, lest we forget, the pandemic is continuing, things are catching up with the construction industry. Supply chain crises and continuing restrictions are stagnating the drive forward. But what can be done to help the industry be more resilient as we face continuing challenges?
What’s causing the supply chain crisis?
It goes without saying that the coronavirus lockdowns wreaked havoc on the supply chain. During the first round of lockdowns, many stakeholders in the construction industry could get away with turning to other matters, as lead times tend to be so long. However, as continuing measures suppress the bounce back, taking these projects into the next stages is becoming increasingly challenging.
This is for a variety of reasons. Several manufacturers have limited the number of workers to reduce the spread of the virus at various points over the past two years. One extreme example was the closure of some major Chinese ports towards the beginning of the pandemic. These caused serious backlogs, of which some industries are still feeling the effects.
Then, after the first round of lockdowns were lifted, demand exploded. All parts of the supply chain, many of which are built on lean principles – no slack, little redundancy, from haulage to inventory – weren’t ready for the uptick. While demand can increase in a matter of weeks, it takes far longer to catch up.
Can construction keep up?
Naturally, construction is one of the industries feeling the strain. Whereas before they might have been sitting pretty relying on previous plans and long leads, now, the return to sites means we need materials. Perhaps there’s nothing to be done in the immediate future, but one thing that’s abundantly clear is that we need to bolster supply chains. But how can this be done?
Many built environment players are already reviewing supply chains for vulnerabilities. This now means making more decisive moves towards fortification, including building inventories, diversifying distribution, and more direct labour recruitment. This could mean more vertical integration across the supply chain to minimise risk.
Another key action will be to drive digitisation. For many companies – as was proven by the initial lockdowns – scaling up remote collaboration capabilities will be essential. For example, building materials manufacturers will need to ensure they have up-to-date BIM, market access through e-commerce, as well as effective remote sales. As is evident, digitised and remote working models will be with us for a long time still (if not forever) so we need to get accustomed as soon as possible.
As is clear, picking up the pieces from the pandemic is an ongoing project. In order to make it through the next set of challenges, construction can’t rest on its laurels – we need to get moving to kick-start the industry once more.